1. Shchedroe leto / Bountiful Summer
(Boris Barnet, 1951)
The first color film I've seen from Barnet - maybe the earliest Soviet color feature I've seen also - is listed as a musical, but don't let that deceive you - the music is all in roughly the first 20 minutes and the last 10, maybe 4 songs total and they aren't that long or that great. What this is mostly is a propaganda film about the glories of collective farming trying to pretend at moments to be a romantic comedy with two would-be couples at it's center. The photography is in the "Magicolor" process but trust me that's not an apt name, at least not in the copy I saw. Dunno, it could be a faded copy or it could just be a poor original process - looks like a lot of cheaper, weaker color systems I've seen in some German and American films from the 40s and 50s; but as mediocre looking as it is the real problem is that the rosy-wonderful Glory-to-Stalin elements are laid on with a trowel and the characters couldn't be thinner. I have plenty of tolerance for both propaganda and melodrama - if done right - but this is just fucking tedious. Unquestionably the worst Barnet film I've seen and one of the weakest Soviet films I've seen period.
2. Dom na Trubnoy / The House on Trubnaya Square
(Boris Barnet, 1928)
And odd film with a lot going on in a fairly short running time. First we're introduced to a several-story house and many inhabitants who always seem to be feuding and getting in the way of each other, particularly over the stairway where a couple of men split logs in defiance of the rules, and the staircase seems on the verge of collapse. Then while we're still getting an idea of these people, the scene shifts to tell the story of Parasha, a young woman who has come to the big city (Moscow) with her goose from the countryside to find her uncle - who meantime has missed her on the train and returned home. Parasha gets a job for an uppity and pretentious barber and his wife in the apartment building, and things go rapidly downhill until there is unexpected news which might turn her life and the whole building's around...
This had a bit too much going on in too short a time for it all to make much sense - I get that it's sort of a screwball comedy, but other than Parasha and her hairdresser boss the characters just didn't resonate and this made the propaganda pro-Soviet elements a bit less meaningful; still it's quite lively and visually inventive (the beginning staircase sequence is quite marvelous) and frequently pretty amusing. So overall, pretty swell, if not even close to Barnet's best work.
3. Malenkaya Vera / Little Vera
(Vasili Pichul, 1988)
2020 continues it's major film-watching trend for me in presenting me with another film that's been on my to-see list for many decades - since it came out in fact. I really don't know why I didn't see this when it was new - it was released in the US in the spring of 1989 and must have played in Chicago but for whatever reason I missed it. And I never watched it on VHS - it was one of those things that rented very heavily at the stores I worked at, mostly the promise of RUSSIANS BEING SEXY AND NAKED! This was especially the case at the store with lots of people with Russian heritage - the movie was always out. Maybe that's why I didn't see it - I would have had to pay to take it out new, and by the time it wasn't so new anymore I was on to other things. Anyway it's always fun to be reminded of these little nuggets of the video-film past...
As to the film itself unfortunately it's disappointing except for that very element that made our philistine customers want it - Natalya Negoda's nakedness. Well, she's not naked a lot to be fair, but she is very cute (if borderline anorexic) and she gives the best performance in the film also. It's one of those dreary life-sucks-and-what-can-we-do-about-it stories that could be set almost anywhere really, though there is a bit of the feel of end-of-an-era, what-comes-next to it that fits Russia at the time. Vera finds a guy who her parents don't like - dad drinks all the time, mom works all the time, older brother's kind of a dick and can't wait to go back to the big city, etc, etc. She decides rather impulsively to marry the guy and this does not lead to positive consequences all around, to no viewer's surprise, although there are several moments of hope to go along with a near-murder and near-suicide along the way. Overall, the general feelings of being trapped, and of probably having to repeat your parents' mistakes, are at the heart of the thing, and I don't see anything particularly new or interesting here apart from Negoda, who has a sort of gloomy charm about her that's interesting. She doesn't seem to have had a really significant screen career since this film, alas.
I did like the fact that it takes place not in Moscow or Saint Petersburg but in a smaller, southern, provincial city - I'm not sure it was mentioned in the film but apparently it's Zhdanov, now called Mariupol, and now in Ukraine, on the coast of the Sea of Azov. So the city landscape is different and the feel is generally different - it takes place in the summer or at least when it's warm and people are swimming and eating fresh watermelon, and there's a feeling of provincialism which isn't necessarily a great thing for the characters but is nice for this outsider looking in. Seems like the vast majority of Russian/Soviet films I've seen have taken place either in one of the largest cities, or entirely in the rural or wilderness environment.
(Victor A. Turin, 1929)
5. Shagay, Sovet! / Stride, Soviet!
(Dziga Vertov, 1926)
The Turin film has become better-known it seems, and more highly regarded, perhaps as a more "mainstream" (if that word has relevance in this context) example of a Soviet propaganda documentary - in this case the story of Turkestan (then a Soviet Central Asian republic) and it's rapid industrialization, with the Turksib railway designed to be finished by 1930 so as to connect the desert steppes of the southern land to the icy cold regions of Siberia. This is very different from Vertov's or Eisenstein's or other works in that it concentrates almost wholly on landscapes and machinery, and while it's all very well done, I found the editing fairly ordinary by the high standards of Soviet filmmakers of that era, and ultimately this just didn't have the impact that it could have had - perhaps too my lack of knowledge of the situations described hurt in this case. Still well worth seeing but to me a little disappointing given the rep it's developed.
The Vertov film on the other hand, while maybe not one of his very greatest, was another piece of remarkable editing and storytelling, propaganda at it's finest. This is essentially a history of the first 7-8 years of the Soviet system, it's triumphs and tragedies (the latter represented especially by the early death of Lenin who Vertov truly seems to have idolized), and it's potential paths forward - a call on Russians to put away drink and foolish pleasures, to educate themselves, clean themselves up, help each other, etc. This has a lot of energy and the title - "forward" or "stride" is mirrored in the editing and montage, as we are presented with a series of negatives - prostitution and drinking - and their correctives, the forward march, the inexorable movement towards a new and better system. I lack the ability to really describe this in better detail but suffice it to say that I always find Vertov's editing choices exciting and this film is no exception. There's a better description of what he's doing HERE